For Tim Hetherington’s close friend and ‘Restrepo’ subjects, mounting a South Bronx gallery show of the late photographer’s work becomes a tribute
Late Wednesday afternoon, Michael Kamber and Danielle Jackson were sitting side by side on a Victorian-looking couch, laptops open in their laps, in Kamber's fourth-floor apartment in the south Bronx.
They were getting ready for the inaugural exhibition of the Bronx Documentary Center, the nonprofit that Kamber, 48, founded earlier this year. Jackson, 31, is the project director of the center, which is located on the ground floor of Kamber's building, a landmarked 19th Century structure in the Melrose section.
They'd been pulling 8 a.m.-to-2 a.m. shifts all week getting ready for the opening, but the deadline for the wall text that would be mounted next to the photographs in the show had crept up on them: It was now just three days away.
The text read in part: "Despite his successes, Tim never lost sight of the human dynamic behind the violence he documented."
The exhibition, titled "Visions," is a collection of never-before-seen photos by the late Tim Hetherington, a British-American photographer who lived in Brooklyn. He was a longtime Vanity Fair contributor and close friend of Kamber's. He died in April while covering the conflict in Libya, along with fellow conflict photographer and Brooklyn resident Chris Hondros.
Hetherington was most famous for his Academy Award-nominated 2010 documentary Restrepo, which he filmed with Sebastian Junger in 2007. The film follows the Army platoon assigned to what was then the most dangerous posting in Afghanistan, The Korengal valley, to clear it of insurgents and gain the trust of the local populace. In the course of the film, the platoon builds a new outpost they name after Juan Sebastian Restrepo, a comrade who was killed during the early days of the 15-month assignment.
Three veterans from that platoon and another veteran of the war in Afghanistan were on their way to Kamber's apartment to help set up the gallery space, along with a petite Marine Corps veteran who was married to one of them. (She hadn't served in Afghanistan, but had done time as a helicopter mechanic in the West African nation of Djibouti.)
The soldiers, all in their twenties, were in town from Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado and South Dakota for an Outward Bound gala the following evening. Having been offered a place to crash in Kamber's spacious one-bedroom apartment, they were more than happy to assist their host, who never served in a war, but has documented a number of them as a photojournalist and reporter for The New York Times.
There was a copy of Hetherington's 2009 book, The Long Story, Bit by Bit: Retelling Liberia, resting on a glass coffee table in the living room, which was decorated with ornate furniture collected from Kamber's travels throughout Africa and the Middle East. A photograph of Hetherington and another of Hondros were laid out on the surface of a cabinet from Iraq that was pushed up against the wall. Between the images were an empty Seagram's gin bottle with two flowers sprouting from the spout, and a white dollar-store candle, the wick of which had burned about halfway down.
Kamber, who has a tan, grizzled complexion and salt-and-pepper stubble that matches the hair on his head, pulled up Hetherington's Libya photos on a green-skinned MacBook. He scrolled through the images, pausing when he came to one that showed a rebel fighter crouching beneath a tree that looked like a lampshade, debris strewn across the dirt in its shadow.
"It combines the things that Tim was interested in," he said. "He loved landscapes. He was fascinated by the war, but he framed it in a way that photojournalists wouldn't have. It's sort of beautiful, disturbing. … It's not a news photo. Everyone was there doing news, and Tim was there saying, 'I want to reveal something else.'"
On April 20, Hetherington was trailing rebels in the besieged coastal city of Misurata when he and Hondros were killed in an explosion from a rocket-propelled grenade. He left behind 40 rolls of undeveloped 220mm film. Kamber, who described Hetherington as his best friend, got permission from Hetherington's family to go through them all. Seventeen will be on display in the Bronx Documentary Center show as 36- by 30-inch prints hanging from the ceiling on two large wood panels, beginning Oct. 22.
"I don't think he had any idea what he was going to do with the work," said Kamber, now sitting on a low-slung wooden chair from Senegal. He paused, shaking his head. "He knew he would do something with it."
IF HETHERINGTON WERE STILL ALIVE he likely would have been working on the exhibition, too. He and Kamber had been kicking around the idea of opening some sort of gallery-cum-educational center for some time ago. Then, in 2010, after spending a few years bouncing back and forth on assignment for the Times, including stints in Bagdhad and Kabul, Kamber was back in New York.
He was riding around the South Bronx on his 2003 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle one day when he noticed a for-sale sign on the fire escape of a four-story apartment building in Melrose with an empty storefront on the first floor. It was said to have been a meeting house in the late 1800s. It was an impressive structure even then, with its red-brick facade and mansard roof in gray shingle, dormer and oriel windows and a neat, vintage white-trimmed storefront of large glass panes. Upstairs, all three apartments had been gutted and renovated. The ground-level storefront was well-suited for a gallery. He made an offer.
It took awhile, but the deal finally closed this past January. Kamber moved into the top apartment upon returning from Afghanistan the following month. Hetherington came by to see the building one afternoon in March after getting back from his first trip to Libya. He immediately fell in love with the place, Kamber recalled, and with the neighborhood, where Hetherington discovered that many of the residents had come from countries he'd worked in. He was thinking he'd move into the second-floor apartment after his second Libya stint.
After Hetherington died, Kamber talked to Jackson, whose background was in coordinating exhibitions, lectures and museum retrospectives for an agency called Magnum Photos. She'd been consulting on the Bronx Documentary Center at first, but soon joined full-time as its project director. They got nonprofit sponsorship in May, the month after Hetherington's death, and plan to be incorporated within a year. They're currently searching for board members. (Kamber hopes Junger will agree to be one of them.) There was a fund-raiser at Tribeca's Bubble Lounge in September, and a Kickstarter campaign is in the works.
Jackson is not much taller than five feet but speaks with the authority of an expert curator and has the passion of a political activist. She described the center as "a space for photography, film and new media in the documentary tradition."
Exhibitions will cycle in and out every six to eight weeks. The center will also develop educational curricula for local young people and school groups in New York's poorest congressional district. Chelsea this most certainly is not.
"We're aware there are a lot of people here who may not have set foot inside a gallery," said Jackson, curled up in a blue arm chair. "We're thinking about how we can tie in particular parts of the population. We're really interested in being able to have strong public programs that bring people in and get them interested."
The 17 images in Hetherington's posthumous show were whittled down from a pool of hundreds. Jackson and her researcher spent months essentially fact-checking the photos to corroborate, as accurately as possible, exactly when and where each one was taken, and to confirm the identities of those within the frame.
"The exhibition is a cross section of what Tim saw in Libya," said Jackson. "He was really interested in this bizarre theatricality surrounding the events there."
AROUND 6 P.M., THE RESTREPO FACTION ARRIVED AT THE APARTMENT. After getting settled in and catching up with Kamber, they huddled around a laptop on the dining room table to view Hetherington's Libya photos for the first time. They saw rebels shooting their weapons at nothing in particular. They saw a rather sharply dressed religious leader raising a pistol beside an empty stretch of desert highway. And they saw a lone military helmet planted in the dust amid a jumble of loyalist uniforms that had been ejected from a truck
"That's the last picture he took," said Kamber. "Tim's last picture. Last roll of film."
They stared at the haunting image before heading downstairs to the gallery a few minutes later.
Located on a noisy street across from a deli and two barber shops, its bright white interior exposed to passersby through a wide storefront window, the space looked more like a construction site than an arts center. The hemlock-wood floor was covered in plastic to shield it from the miscellany of ladders, tools and planks scattered about the room. You could almost taste the fresh paint and sawdust.
The goal that evening was to assemble the two 4- by 14-foot panels, about 350 pounds each, and hang them from the ceiling. The vets didn't seem fazed.
Liz Trujillo, the former Marine helicopter mechanic, inspected some electrical wiring. Her husband, Brendan O'Byrne, crouched down to examine a blueprint with Michael Jackson and Kristopher Russell, each clutching a bottle of Dos Equis. Marc "Solo" Solowski lugged a table saw up from the basement and set it down on the right-hand side of the room.
"This shouldn't be too difficult," he said.
After all, these were some of the same guys who had built Operating Post Restrepo with their bare hands in 2007. Everyone agreed that Junger and Hetherington won the admiration and respect of the troops by putting themselves in harm's way just to chronicle their daily lives.
"Tim came [to Afghanistan] a stranger and he left a brother," O'Byrne said in May at a New York memorial service for Hetherington, fighting back tears. "He didn't have to do what he did out there. He didn't have to put his life on the line. He didn't have to tell our story."
In the gallery that night, the crew worked hard to finish the panels. By midnight, they'd built both frames and succeeded in hanging one of them. They decided to call it quits.
Back upstairs, after picking up two additional six-packs from a local bodega, Hetherington's friends sat around and reminisced about life at war. The subject matter was heavy, but the mood remained light.
"They're constantly talking about Afghanistan," Kamber said later. "They kind of laugh about it, you know?"
As the beer ran low, Kamber broke out a bottle of Hennessy from his liquor cabinet. They passed it around before turning in around 2:30.
The next morning, Kamber got back to work around 9:30 as his guests ventured into Manhattan to rent tuxedos. Later that evening, while they were at the Outward Bound gala, he said he was grateful to have them there, even though they wouldn't be able to stick around for Saturday's opening.
"I could get anybody in here and pay them to work on the gallery," he said. "But to have these guys here who were at war with Tim, it's kind of a spiritual thing. It's special. It feels like a community coming home. From Afghanistan to the Bronx."